Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac), the hero of J. C. Chandor’s “A Most Violent Year,” was born in Colombia, but when we meet him, in 1981, he’s living in Westchester, a wealthy businessman in his late thirties, swathed in double-breasted suits and a camel-hair coat. Emerging from his Mercedes coupe, he speaks decisively but quietly, as if raising his voice would signal a loss of authority. Abel started out driving a truck for a heating-oil-delivery business in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. He has since taken over the company and enjoys the love of the people who work for him, but he wants more: more money, more power—and some respect from his rivals, Jews and Italians who have worked the trade for decades. He conducts himself like a suavely intelligent young gangster, and, for a while, you can imagine that he really is a gangster. It was a particularly lawless moment in New York City, and, as Chandor, who also wrote the screenplay, tells it, few people in the oil-delivery business could avoid moral compromise, if not outright fraud and violence. How do you rise in such a business without licensing mayhem or becoming an ally of the Mob, which controls a good part of the playing field? The movie is an entrepreneurial fable, set in a specific time and place, but it’s also a timeless portrait of a hard-charging immigrant American. Some of the menacing atmosphere, and even a few scenes, descend from the first two “Godfather” movies. But, in fact, Chandor has done something startling: he has made an anti-“Godfather.”
His first feature, “Margin Call” (2011), was by far the best—the savviest and most emotionally resonant—of the films and TV dramas devoted to the financial crisis of 2008. Chandor, whose father worked in finance in New York, demonstrated a forceful and sensitive understanding of such things as the protocols of hierarchy in the financial world and the dramatic significance of decorum, diction, glances, silences. He seemed fascinated by power and, at the same time, ardently appreciative of decency and small acts of compassion. Set at a big investment bank on the day subprime-mortgage assets imploded, “Margin Call” has a pungent aura laced with melancholy. Chandor blended together strong performances by Kevin Spacey, Paul Bettany, Jeremy Irons, Zachary Quinto, and even Demi Moore and Simon Baker, as the panic that begins at night gives way to a foul dawn of recrimination, disillusion, and desperate strategy.
That film followed a downward plunge; this one charts an upward surge. Abel, with his thick dark hair, his classic profile, and his refined manners, drives through derelict, graffiti-covered industrial buildings in Brooklyn, and sees money in the crumbling walls. He buys a loading and storage dock adjacent to his own property, but on the East River, which will allow him easy access to oil barges, and greatly expand his operation. The sellers, garment-district Orthodox Jews, accept a cash down payment and demand the rest of the money—a million and a half dollars, also in cash—within thirty days. They’re puzzled: they don’t want the dock, and they don’t know why Abel does, but a deal is a deal. If they don’t get the money, they can sell the property to one of his rivals and keep his down payment. (Those were the days! Making big off-the-books transactions without fear of being surveilled, or tracked by G.P.S.) The movie chronicles a frantic period in Abel’s life, as he tries to raise the cash at the same time that an ambitious assistant district attorney (David Oyelowo) is looking to charge him with fraud (for rigging scales and underreporting income); rivals are attacking his fleet drivers and draining the oil from his trucks; and the head of a truckers’ union (Peter Gerety) is pushing him to arm the drivers with revolvers. Abel is a true capitalist hero: as the pressures on him mount, he delves deeper into risk. According to entrepreneurial logic, he can’t get ahead unless he courts disaster.
Seventy years ago, a story of ambition, temptation, and violence would have been made as a fast-paced noirish melodrama, starring John Garfield; sixty years ago, it would have been a psychological thriller, with Kirk Douglas; forty years ago, a furious anti-corruption rant, with Al Pacino. Chandor’s way with the material is drier, subtler, more realistic and more morally nuanced than those earlier modes. He’s actually interested in high-stakes business and what it can do to people. The fear never lets up—assaults arrive out of nowhere—but much of the action consists of hooded banter, dealmaking, and sharp elbowing. Chandor begins many of these scenes with wide-angle shots that set the context—on warehouse-lined streets or inside spacious homes—before he moves to medium shots and closeups. Bradford Young’s cinematography captures the yellowish early-morning light when the drivers set out, but, at times, the wide shots make the movie feel distant; it lacks both the visual excitement that Martin Scorsese or David Fincher would have built into it and the momentum and the rhythm that David O. Russell would have provided. When Abel finally loses his temper, there’s a prolonged chase (car, foot, and subway) that’s exciting enough, but the glory of “A Most Violent Year” lies in Chandor’s sense of how a certain corner of the world (and, by implication, a much larger portion of it) works, for ill or for good. The movie is devoted to the scrappy side of fortune-building at the end of the industrial age. (Manhattan’s towers beckon in the background of many shots.) As Abel makes his rounds, borrowing from everyone he can while trying to hold on to his pride, Chandor gives us bits of New York ethnic lore, including visits with a disarmingly mild, second-generation Mafia plutocrat (Alessandro Nivola), who has his own fleet of trucks and lives in a guarded fortress. The milieu is so thick with ambiguity that this charming man, who has been plotting against Abel, warns his rival not to borrow money from people like him.
Abel confides in only two people: his lawyer, Andrew Walsh (Albert Brooks), who is the voice of caution, and his show-me-buster wife, Anna (Jessica Chastain), who keeps the books—in a fashion—and who is attracted to danger. Anna, from Brooklyn Mafia stock, is aspirational, with long nails, perfect blond hair, and figure-clinging Armani dresses; she also has a thing about guns. Chastain, sidling up to Isaac, makes Anna a cross between a forties-movie good-bad girl and Lady Macbeth, ready to taunt her husband the minute his boldness fails him. Some of Chandor’s dialogue for her is slightly tinny and movieish. “You’re not going to like it when I get involved,” Anna says to Abel, by which she means that she will call on her gangster family for help. Chastain may be too serious an actress to give a line like that its full, campy lilt, but she’s entertaining as a wife who would rather be a moll, and Anna and Abel, fighting, making love, defending their uncomfortable glass-and-steel suburban home, are a rare team in movies, a partnership sealed with sex and money-hunger.
In “Inside Llewyn Davis,” Oscar Isaac’s handsome looks were intentionally muted by surly narcissism. He gave a borderline dislikable performance, hewing almost too faithfully to the Coen brothers’ idea of the character as a self-destructive second-level artist (a folksinger), a man incapable of receiving or expressing affection. Llewyn was a grouch of modest talent, and Isaac remained inflexibly angry and distant. But, in “A Most Violent Year,” he does more than fill out a starring role. He gives a movie-star performance, drawing the audience to him. His dark features, his concentration, and his formal speech recall (intentionally, I think) Pacino as Michael Corleone in “The Godfather: Part II.” But he adds touches of his own—for instance, a slight pause before answering a direct question, which makes the exchange, however small, seem grave.
If you’re a rising entrepreneur, you have to impress people, even a confused, impulsive young immigrant like Julian (Elyes Gabel), one of Abel’s drivers, whom he tries to help. In Julian, Abel sees a version of his younger self, but the flip side to his success story, a nervous guy who can’t take the pressure; the character is Chandor’s way of reminding us that most immigrants don’t wear camel hair. Michael Corleone doesn’t help anyone outside the family, and it’s the ways in which Abel differs from him that make the movie special. Chandor holds Abel back from operatic violence, which may be a commercial mistake, but it’s the appropriate strategy for this story, since Abel’s success as a gangster would lead to his destruction as a man. “You must take the path that is most right,” he tells the assistant D.A. who tries to bring him down. Chandor suggests that there is no absolute right, except possibly in the fantasies of moralists and the deluded. But everyone has the chance to take the path that is most right. As a moral guide, the phrase is hardly a clarion call, but in a fallen world, ruled by money and compromise—our world—it’s almost good enough to become a meme.